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Lighthousekeeping

September 12, 2021

I got interested in Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson after reading about it at The Literary Sisters where it’s described as an autumnal read.

Rather than a review, I feel like this brief novel could best be summarized by a glossary: Lighthousekeeping is storytelling. Dark is background. Samson is tea. A seahorse is the act of sex. Love is secrecy.

I enjoyed dipping into the novel in the fifteen minutes I had before bed for a few nights. It’s made up of bits and stories that overlap, a perfect preview for dreaming. As in a dream, though, there are parts of the novel that don’t follow sequentially and other parts that just disappear. Some of this is for effect—to create whatever feeling a reader has on discovering that the man Babel Dark spied with the woman he loved was not a rival, but a brother. But some of it just seems to have been forgotten—where does DogJim go? Does his owner, the main character, a girl called Silver, even care? Why does Silver leave the island where she was born when she seems to have no ambition besides storytelling and no associate except a woman she meets and falls in love with on the way?

The beginning of the novel is surreal. The narrator claims to have lived in a house where “the chairs had to be nailed to the floor” and her mother had to “rope us together like a pair of climbers, just to achieve our own front door.”

There’s some of the ridiculous flavor of Tristram Shandy telling the story of his life and having trouble getting past his own birth in the early chapter entitled “A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method.” The narrator suggests several dates she could start with and then decides on 1959, claiming to remember being born: “I had been drifting through the unmarked months, turning slowly in my weightless world. It was the light that woke me.”

The lighthouse keeper who takes in the orphaned Silver, Pew, tells stories, and when she asks him “why can’t you just tell me the story without starting with another story?” replies “because there’s no story that’s the start of itself, any more than a child comes into the world without parents.” So it’s the stories Pew told her that form the inner circle of concurrent stories in the novel.

I like the story of the innkeeper of an inn called The Razorbill who changed the name of his inn to The Rock and Pit, because it sounds like what happens in this small college town where people still sometimes give directions by telling me to turn right where the (for example) Macionis house used to be. In the novel we’re told that “sailors, being what they are, still called it by its former name for a good sixty years or more.”

Like what the narrator says about stories, the novel has “no continuous narrative, there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark.”

Two of the lit-up moments are about what Silver steals. First she steals a book, which is kind of understandable because she wanted to finish reading it. Then she steals a bird because it said her name, and after that she is arrested and sent to a psychiatrist, with the bird returned to its owner. So at one point in the novel, storytelling becomes lying, including to yourself.

I lost sympathy with the lying, stealing narrator who is adrift from her life, traveling to different countries for no reason in particular, but continued to enjoy her descriptions, like of an Albanian family:
“great-grandmother, air-dried like a chili pepper, deep red skin and a hot temper; grandmother, all sun-dried tomato, tough, chewy, skin split with the heat; getting the kids to rub olive oil into her arms; mother, moist as a purple fig, open everywhere—blouse, skirt, mouth, eyes, a wide-open woman, lips licking the salt spray flying from the open boat. Then there were the kids, aged four and six, a couple of squirts, zesty as lemons.”

And even if I don’t really care what happens to Silver and her story doesn’t go much of anywhere, there are insights along the way, like that “love and selfishness are not the same thing. It is easy to be selfish. It is hard to love who I am.”

If you want a short novel to drift around in before sleep, this is an interesting one. The dreams are not all good ones, however. There are some very dark moments, both literal and figurative. A description of how Babel Dark punishes himself after beating his wife will stay with me for much longer than I’d like it to. But other descriptions and thoughts will also stay with me, and on the whole, I think that most readers will find the meander through this story about stories worthwhile.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2021 1:47 pm

    I’ve had a copy of this for a few years but not got round to picking it up, don’t know why, but your review intrigues me enough to make it a priority to read. I’ve read two of the later novels which feature Silver, Tanglewreck (which I enjoyed but never reviewed on my blog) and Battle for the Sun which just confused me as to its intentions (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-battle). Lighthousekeeping now attracts me, if only because of the name!

    • September 16, 2021 9:39 am

      Yes, it was partly the name that made me pick it up. Almost irresistible, really! I’m not sure I want to read any more novels featuring Silver, though. One may have been enough.

  2. September 12, 2021 7:57 pm

    She is such an interesting writer. Years and years ago I read Written on the Body but it’s been so long I probably should reread it. I loved her recent collection of Christmas stories.

    • September 16, 2021 9:40 am

      Christmas stories? I will have to look for those! Thanks

  3. September 15, 2021 3:54 pm

    I do like Winterson and I don’t think I have read this one, but maybe I have since it seems familiar. I’ll have to check my booklist. but if I haven’t read it, I will have to put it on my TBR

    • September 16, 2021 9:42 am

      I guess the light/dark imagery is why it’s on a list for autumnal reads. There’s a little bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which almost tips it into the Halloween reads category.

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